Education is the key to better nutrition

The UK’s claim to being a developed nation is increasingly fragile. We may have the sixth largest economy, a literate population, and a stable democracy, but we are failing to safeguard the health and wellbeing of millions within our own borders. 

Few other scandals undermine the UK’s supposed ‘advanced’ status more than the millions of young people and children currently suffering from poor nutrition. In England, children eat 50% more sugar than the recommended level and only 25% of their recommended levels of fruit and vegetables, according to the Faculty of Public Health. This type of diet is a key contributor to the scourge of “modern malnutrition”- diets that result in obesity and other health issues. Traditional malnutrition- in the sense of people not receiving enough food to function- is also still at large in the UK. Figures from the 2003 textbook of paediatrics revealed that 20% of hospitalised children were at risk of developing the condition.    

Modern malnutrition in young people inflicts both physical and psychological damage that can escalate rapidly to severe illness and increased risk of early death later in life. The body quite literally rebels against itself if it does not receive the right fuel it needs to keep running, weakening the coronary system and reducing the body’s defences against cancer. Recent studies even suggest that poor nutrition can be linked to an increased likelihood of committing anti-social behaviour. Traditional malnutrition, meanwhile, is linked to stunted growth, delayed intellectual development, and an increased risk of rickets and osteoporosis.

What are the causes of this national disgrace? As the growing queues at food banks testify, accessing food is becoming harder for hundreds of thousands of people across the country. But the problem is not just one of expense. When people do get their hands on food, it is often the ‘wrong’ kind in terms of nutritional value. In addition, many do not know how to prepare food in a way that maximises its benefits to the body.

Assigning blame for this widespread negligence isn’t easy, but one factor must be the poor standard of food, cooking and nutrition education taught in our schools. A survey of teachers conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) found that 88% rate nutrition education as poor or just adequate. Over half said they were concerned that weekly lessons were too short.

We know better education is a tonic to a whole range of social ills, but should never forget its value in tackling health issues as well. It is therefore welcome that the government is making cooking and nutrition education compulsory from this September. But without equipping classrooms with the necessary resources or allocating adequate time to nutrition lessons, this pledge will lack punch.

Returning to the BNF survey, 80% of teachers did not believe compulsory classes would change the time available for cooking lessons, and 86% doubted any additional technical support would be on offer.

A country is only as strong as its people, so any government claiming to work in the national interest cannot afford to ignore the physical degradation of millions of its citizens. The coalition should therefore ensure that classrooms are appropriately resourced to provide quality nutrition education and prevent generations of children growing up without knowing how to eat themselves healthy.

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